Copper in the Arts

October 2009

Shaping the Modern Aesthetic: Emmett Culligan Designs

By Erica David

Emmett Culligan Emmett Culligan in his shop

Photograph by Erica David

In downtown Denver, next to a lot strewn with huge tires and up the street from a tiny taco joint, is Emmett Culligan Designs.

There, artist/entrepreneur Emmett Culligan and his team conceive and construct architectural interiors for restaurants, retail stores, banks and casinos, as well as doing custom projects for private homes.

From its small beginnings in 1996, the business has expanded steadily. Now, clients include heavy hitters like P.F. Chang's Bistro, Yard House restaurants, Hard Rock Café and Cartier.

Emmett Culligan Designs (ECD) specializes in the design, production and installation of utilitarian and decorative cladding, railings and stairs, balconies, awnings, custom and production furniture, fixtures and accessories.

I talked with Culligan in the comfortable office adjoining his studio, a space punctuated by paintings and sculpture that convey both weight and wit. These fine art pieces live side by side with vintage postcards, office equipment and practical art objects like the brass coat rack commissioned by P.F. Chang's.

Energetic and candid, Culligan recounts his story so far. Trained as a sculptor--he holds a BFA from UC Denver--Culligan was attracted to welding and metalwork from the start. The business he subsequently built is a fusion of creativity and entrepreneurial spirit. It meets the needs of a small niche and he's been very successful.

Work in progress. Emmett preps a sheet of copper.

Photograph by Erica David

Building the business, Culligan says, has been a learning experience as well as a series of tests.

"The truth is that there aren't too many people who can do what we do and make it work," he says. "It's a mixture of art, business and engineering."

"There is a lot involved," Culligan says. "We work with the architect to create the plan, the drawings, everything, then we produce it and travel to the site, wherever it is, then do the installation."

"It's an advantage," he continues, "not to be limited by being local. Whether the client is a casino in Las Vegas or a restaurant a thousand miles away, we are the outsiders that come in and get the job done."

A current project, which Culligan describes enthusiastically, is the cladding and architectural metalwork for IronStone Bank in Kansas City featuring copper rails and gold leaf on the roof.

When asked how he's doing so well, even in the current economic downturn, he cites several things: coming from a family of entrepreneurs; absorbing the lesson of Michael Gerber's seminal 1985 book E Myth, which argues that people with technical or artistic ability usually fail in business because they don't figure out how to operationalize what they do; and finding a truly great office manager to coordinate operations.

His philosophy is to use his free moments to continue to fine tune every aspect of the process until it's absolutely efficient. The point, he says, is to minimize mistakes.

"I don't have a problem putting my ego aside to streamline the business because I have other artistic outlets" (he continues to do his own fine art projects)," says Culligan. "Maybe it's geeky but it's actually satisfying to me to work on the details."

As an example of the importance of details, he cites a recent fiasco in shipping a $20,000 order. Everything was done perfectly except the crates weren't right and they broke in transit, damaging the work. Now they've figured out how to do the crates right every time.

When I ask if there are particular metals he prefers, Culligan grins and says he doesn't discriminate. He works with steel, bronze, brass and zinc as well as non-metal materials like glass, stone and wood.

Culligan does love working with copper, though, and points out that copper is great because of all its possibilities in terms of patina. He also likes that "it's futuristic at the same time as being old school." ECD gets all its copper from ThyssenKrupp, NA.

The same might be said of Culligan himself, since his family of entrepreneurs includes his great grandfather, the depression-era innovator who brought soft water to the masses with the memorable tagline, "Hey, Culligan Man!"

Resources:

Emmet Culligan Design, 3495 Wynkoop St., Denver, CO, (303) 433-1412

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